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  • Writer's pictureMungo Dalglish

Why I Wasn't There

Updated: Dec 17, 2018

Perhaps I was worried about being arrested. Maybe I had other things to do. Or just possibly I was afraid of actually being called upon by the cameras and asked, ‘Why?’. I wanted to do something, to show my support, to express solidarity in the face of a global environmental crisis. But what? How? Why? 

The weekend preceding Nov 17th’s planned Non-Violent Direct Action I was having a conversation with two of my closest friends about it. Much like the climate, it began to get a little heated. It seemed like, in general, there was much we agreed upon: our way of life was having some measure of deleterious impact on the environment, our society was unequal and deeply problematic, and the systems and structures of power were at best not responding adequately, at worst actively undermining the mechanisms of egalitarian democracy. And so why was it so hard for us three to reach a consensus on the true gravity of the situation? Why wasn’t the environment the top priority for them, upstream of dinner dates and even child social services? Why weren’t they going to take to the streets with me?

Pondering my moral outrage, I spent some more time on the Extinction Rebellion website and affiliated social media channels, and my picture became murkier. A lot of great song and dance and togetherness, alongside a lot of hyperbole and anti-establishment echo chambers. As with the ‘declaration of rebellion’ that Iona, Sophia and I had attended on Nov 1st, the rhetoric and my emotional/intellectual response to it varied widely. From the same microphone at Parliament Square squawked the anarchistic populism of a belligerent man,  (“Gandhi took on the British government… and won! Millicent Fawcett took on the British government… and won! Martin Luther King took on the ruling elite… and won!”), and the thoughtful, measured bewilderment of a Swedish schoolgirl (“If the climate situation was as bad as the scientists say it is, every single media channel would be talking about it non-stop, wouldn’t they?”). The former merely hammered on my ear drums and got my hackles up, whilst the latter stirred something within me, resonating with a deeply felt and desperate truth. 

When we moved into the street for a peaceful sit-in, the podium moved with us, but this strange contrast continued: one organiser congruently welcomed the presence of the police, recognised they were just performing their jobs, and expressed solidarity against the recent cuts to police funding; a mic’d singer heckled them jokily, saying something like “I can tell you’re just itching to come and join us aren’t you! I know you can’t believe in what you’re doing”. Perhaps she meant it harmlessly, but it felt to me like playground politics where the ‘us’ crowd mockingly makes no space for ‘them’, and in fact thus creates the separation. What person has ever been swayed to change their position by a smarmy and disempowering, “You know you want to”? It felt like an ego-exercise rather than a true attempt at inclusivity. And this off-note reverberated through the eventual arrests after repeated police warnings. I felt very supportive of those who chose to be arrested for their beliefs, to raise awareness of the seriousness of this conversation and their commitment to the wider whole – I had myself been contemplating it – however the applause which accompanied it made me uncomfortable. As though it were a performance. It seemed somehow appropriate that the selfsame man from the beginning of the day was arrested, despite the organisers repeatedly reiterating that November 17th was in fact the plan for sustained mass civil disobedience and voluntary arrests, today being “just the beginning”. It constituted his 5th time, as he proudly declared. 

What is our point of communion? How do we respond? Where is the deep place that commitment lives? 

I’ve just read Charles Eisenstein’s Climate: a new story [1], and it is like being being shepherded through the murky trails of my own half-articulated mind, guided through the shadow valleys, dappled woodland, and clear glades in the landscape of my recent years. Extinction Rebellion is declaring a ‘climate emergency’, and advocating a World War Two-style mobilisation to ‘fight’ it. Fight climate change, just like we fight terror, drugs, and poverty. Maybe Sicario’s Matt Graver is right, and we’re losing because our tactics aren’t responding to new, dirtier realities: the carbon budget is being eaten up, so let’s roll out the wartime carbon-rationing measures and perhaps next threaten with violence those global states unwilling to do the same. But what if this is the same thinking that got us here in the first place? Why would more reduction, separation, and domination get us out of this mess? What if we need a wholesale strategic shift, one that honours the irreducible beauty and interconnectedness of life from a place of compassion and humility rather than fear and control? 

How many of us prefer being outside to being in an office? Why do we naturally gravitate towards green spaces? How many respond with some deep stirring when we encounter a really massive tree? Or a river you could drink from? Or a quiet deer in the forest? What did you love as a child, how did you feel? 

Eisenstein explores this at much greater length and with much greater clarity than I am able to do here. It is absolutely worth a read, whether or not you think it’s ‘your thing’.

I haven’t found any easy answers. Not in my own eco-piety or self-flagellation. Not amongst governmental policies which advocate dumping radioactive mud off Cardiff, make legal allowances for how severe Preston’s earthquakes can be before we stop fracking, and bank on future carbon-extracting technologies. But neither amongst those who would impose a wartime climate emergency and deal with the complexity later.

On November 17th, I planted trees. 

[1] C. Eisenstein, Climate: a new story (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2018)

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